Sunday, May 27, 2012

Holy, Holy, Holy (Isaiah 6:1-8)

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.  Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.  And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.”
The pivots of the threshold shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.  And I said, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.  The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”  Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

I discovered something disturbing about myself this week:  I overuse the word “awesome.”

I went back through my emails, facebook messages, and text messages, and discovered that when people shared something with me, I responded no fewer than 27 times in the last week alone that the news in question was, in fact, “awesome.”  Here are just some of the things I said were “awesome” in the past week: someone finding a lost book, weight loss, a new shirt, an omelette, a new job, a kitchen remodel, an oil change, a golf shot, and the grocery store having a particular item in stock.  All this evidence leads me to believe that I may, in fact, overuse the word “awesome” just slightly.

What does the word really mean?  Overused in the vernacular to designate that which is good, great, wonderful, fantastic; or an alternate tongue-in-cheek sarcastic usage that roughly means “lame” such as “This pizza is awesome” when the pizza in question comes from the airport food court.  If you haven’t noticed lately, according to us, anyway, everything is awesome!

How far this common usage strays from the most appropriate use of the word “awesome.”  The most appropriate place for the word “awesome” is at the top of the heap, on the pinnacle of pinnacles, the superlatives of superlatives - a word we should perhaps hold in reserve for the One who sits upon the throne of thrones who is the King of kings and the Lord of lords.  May we pray.

Language matters
I love words.  I have always loved words and what they can do.  As speakers of the English language, we have an ever-growing number of words at our disposal.  Does anyone have any idea how many words there are in the English language?  The Global Language Monitor estimates that as of January 1 of this year, the English language had 1,013,913 words, compared with about 500,000 just 60 years ago.  English is a fluid, flexible language where new words are introduced all the time, and not just by politicians!  If you hunt hard enough, you should be able to find just the right word for the occasion, and if you can’t, make one up.

Even so, with so many linguistic options just waiting to be exercised, how often do our words come up short?  Nowhere is this more evident than in our attempts to describe and define God.  Indeed, how can the infinite mysteries of God be described by something so finite as language?  Nevertheless, we have one word that stands out from the others as an excellent starting place, and that word is “holy.”

In today’s text, it is the word used by the six-winged seraphs who are flying around the throne of God, who are calling to each other with these words in verse 3: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.  The whole earth is full of his glory.”

“Holy” is a word that means “having divine origin or character,” but what you may not know is that simply the number of times the word is used means something.  The repetition of words was a way of denoting the intensity of the thing is ratcheted up.  Saying it twice, “Holy, holy,” is like “holier,” and “Holy, holy, holy” is like “holiest.”  In essence, it means God is the ultimate in holy, that nothing or no one is holier than God, that holiness is just exploding out of God, that when it comes to holiness, God is it.  “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.”

There’s another clue in the text about just how holy God is.  When God is seated on the throne, verse 1 says, “the hem of his robe filled the temple.”  The temple was a large, grand, impressive building.  It represented the pinnacle of human engineering ability.  And, in this grandeur, just the hem of God’s robe completely filled the space, meaning that the bigness and holiness of God completely dwarfs any of our human accomplishments.

Called into ministry
The whole of today’s text from the 6th Chapter of Isaiah is commonly referred to as “the call of Isaiah,” because he comes face-to-face with the glory, the splendor, the awesomeness, the holiness of God, and the direction of his life is forever changed.  So it was with Isaiah, and so it is with us.  God is counting on you to represent God’s healing, holiness, and love to a broken, hurting, and hate-filled world.  In verse 8, God asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and Isaiah responds, “Here am I; send me.”  What we need to know is God is still asking the same question - “Whom shall I send?” and the answer given by faithful people who have had an encounter with the holiness of God is still the same: “Here am I; send me.”

It begs the question of each of us – where have we encountered the holiness of God?  And what I posit for your consideration this morning is this: there is a difference between the sacred and the holy.  Encounters with the sacred are fairly common, but encounters with the holy are much rarer.

Now, perhaps you’re a bit confused right now, thinking, “What is he talking about – the difference between ‘sacred’ and ‘holy?’  I always thought they were the same thing!”  We use the terms ‘sacred’ and ‘holy’ interchangeably, and even their dictionary definitions are almost identical, so what am I talking about when I say that ‘sacred’ and ‘holy’ are not quite the same thing?  The difference is subtle, but that subtle difference has a world of meaning, and it is this: God determines what is holy; humans determine what is sacred.  God creates holy; humans create sacred.  Holy comes from the hand of God; sacred comes from the hand of humans.  Sacred is linked to the creation; holy is linked to the Creator.

We are infinitely more comfortable talking about and dealing with sacred things than we are with encountering holy things because we fashion and determine what is sacred, and we have no say in what is holy.

Think of the things that are referred to as sacred in the life of the Church: sacred music, sacred art, sacred literature, sacred architecture, sacred buildings, sacred customs, sacred traditions, sacred symbols.  Every one of these – things of our own making.  Then, think of what is holy: Holy Savior, Holy Spirit, Holy Father, Holy Redeemer, Holy God, Holy relationships.  All of these things – outside our own control or making.

To carry the contrast further, it may observed that contact with the sacred and the holy evoke quite different human reactions.  Contact with the sacred may provoke such varied feelings as reverence, veneration, superstition, boredom, or even revulsion.  How different this is from what happens with contact with the holy: bewilderment, unbelief, inner turmoil, a sense of unworthiness.

The things which are sacred are intended as a gateway to the holy.  This 6th Chapter of Isaiah is set in the temple – a sacred space – where Isaiah had a vision of the holy God.  That which is sacred is never intended as a means unto itself, and yet how often we people of faith become so focused on the things that are sacred to us, we forget to look past them to glimpse the holy beyond.

The people in Isaiah’s day and indeed in ours can sometimes have such a reverential and possesive protection for that which is sacred – our building, our music, our customs, our traditions – that we don’t even bother to look for or discern the holy.  Many times our reverence for the sacred keeps us from experiencing the holy.

For people of Christian faith, that which is holy always takes priority over that which is sacred.  I wonder what would happen if we would focus the time and energy toward experiencing the holy that we often spend trying to protect and preserve the sacred?  Who knows, we might end up slaughtering some sacred cows and making some mighty tasty burgers in the process!

And here’s a secret – God’s not that interested in the sacred.  Even the sacred space of the temple where Isaiah had his vision – did you know that God never really wanted that temple?  Recall the story back in 1 Chronicles 17, where King David has built his palace and realizes that he is set up in a nicer pad than God, and decides to build God a suitable temple.  And through the prophet Nathan, God responds and says, “Did I ask you to build me a temple?  I don’t want a temple!  I prefer to be on the move with the people.”  Indeed, David never did build the temple, though his son later did.

The holiness of God dwells with the people.  Always has, always will.  God prefers it that way, in fact.  If you are looking for the holiness of God, you’ll find that the human heart is the temple of the Holy Spirit.  You’ll find that the fullness of God’s holiness was pleased to leave the splendor of heaven, to be born in human form, and live among us in the person of Jesus.  You’ll find that we are created in the image of a holy God, and God is restoring that holiness as we grow day-by-day in grace, through the redemption of Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The holiness of God dwells with the people, such that Church Father St. Irenaeus said, “Man fully alive is the glory of God.”  God’s holiness is most fully revealed and experienced in, and through, and with the people.  Always has, always will.

A pattern for worship
The 6th chapter of Isaiah is the paradigm for a centuries-old pattern of worship which includes Praise (vv. 1-3), Confession (v. 5), Pardon (vv. 6-7), and Response (v. 8).  Churches the world over follow this basic pattern in their worship gatherings, and if you look at our bulletin, you can see this shape echoed as we sing all sorts of songs of praise, confess our sin and are assured of God’s forgiveness, and respond to God’s goodness in a variety of ways, including an offering of monetary gifts, a sermon, and being sent forth into the world with our lives centered on Christ and magnifying God’s joy.  This text provides a pattern for worship for all those who have encountered the holiness of God.

The hymn we sang earlier today - Holy, Holy, Holy – could have been lifted right out of this text and it is one of my favorites: the congregation sang it at my mom’s funeral, the congregation sang it at mine and Ashley’s wedding.  If you don’t sing it at my funeral, I WILL come back and haunt you!  On our wedding DVD, I go back and watch the congregation sing that hymn two, sometimes three times before moving on to watch the rest of the worship service because it’s so beautiful.

When voices are joined together in songs of praise to God, something beautiful and holy takes place.  As I have shared with you before, St. Augustine said, “The one who sings once prays twice.”  Music has that way of lifting us from the here-and-now and transporting us - much like Isaiah having his temple vision - into the nearer presence of God, where our voices are tuned as the instruments in a symphony of constant praise to God.  And as wonderful and glorious and marvelous as worship can be in this life, what we experience is but the tiniest foretaste of what awaits us in worship in the life to come.

Even so, worship in this life is best offered when we put our best into it.  When we put our heart and soul into worship, it’s amazing the way that God transforms our hearts and souls in the process.  And here’s what I know - what we get out of worship is directly related to what we put into worship.  I cannot help but think of John Wesley’s directions for singing published in the Methodist hymnbook in 1761, and reprinted to this day in the front of our hymnal.  In particular, I love rule #4: “Sing lustily and with a good courage.  Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.  Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.”

I think Mr. Wesley was onto something, and I want to encourage you to take his words to heart.  When the congregation sings together - whether it is a time-honored hymn or a newer song of praise - you sing your little heart out like your salvation depends on it.  Don’t worry about whether or not you know the tune, don’t worry about whether or not you “like” the song, don’t worry about what your voice sounds like.  Sing along, and sing as loud as you possibly can - put everything you’ve got into worshipping the Lord God Almighty, and I guarantee you that if you’ll pour your heart into worship, God will give your heart back to you in better shape than it was to begin with.  Indeed, an encounter with the Holy One always changes us.

God cares less about our reverence for the sacred than our encounters with the holy.  And so I ask again what I asked earlier – where have you encountered what is holy?  Not what is sacred, but what is truly holy?  If you encounter the Holy One, you’ll never be the same.  Thanks be to God!

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